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Labor Report

Bankruptcy Judge Approves Sale of Idled Oil Refinery to Industrial Park Developer

A U.S. Bankruptcy Court ruling could spell the end of a century-and-a-half of oil refining in South Philadelphia and the permanent loss of 1,100 refinery jobs.

During a February 12 hearing in Wilmington, Delaware, Judge Kevin Gross tentatively approved the sale of the idled 1,300-acre Philadelphia Energy Solutions facility to a Chicago firm that has said it plans to redevelop the site into a mixed-use industrial park, the Inquirer reported.

In closed-door negotiations prior to the hearing, Hilco Redevelopment Partners raised its bid to $252 million and overcame the offer of a rival firm that said it planned to re-start the refinery. Hilco’s final offer was a $12 million increase over the $240 million bid it presented as part of a January 17 auction.

The United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represented about 600 of the refinery’s workers, initially opposed the sale to Hilco, but signed onto the revised agreement after the company offered to pay $5 million in severance to former workers and to retain some union workers for maintenance and to remove remaining fuels from the facility.

“The $5 million is not equal to a job, is not equal to employment, is not equal to the brotherhood and the sisterhood that we had in the refinery,” former Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan said, according to WHYY. “We were a family there. It doesn’t equal that. And it does nothing for the poor in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding communities because I don’t know how the area is going to make up $16 billion in economic activity.”

Environmental activists had advocated for a non-refining reuse following a June 21, 2019, explosion and fire that led to the facility’s closing. At the time, it was the largest and most productive refinery on the East Coast. No plan has been presented for cleaning up the site, which has been used for oil production since the 1870s. The court did not determine who will be responsible for the cleanup.

Two More Philly Schools Close Due to Asbestos Hazards

The School District of Philadelphia was forced to shut down two more elementary schools on February 13 and 14 for emergency asbestos remediation work, just days after U.S. House leaders announced a plan to invest $100 billion for infrastructure projects in low-income school districts around the nation.

The district did not announce a reopening date for Clara Barton Elementary in Philadelphia’s Feltonville section and James J. Sullivan Elementary in Frankford but told families to look for an update during the ensuing weekend. They are the eighth and ninth schools to close in the city since September due to asbestos contamination.

“The cause for the temporary closing at both schools is due to damaged asbestos that was found during inspections of the buildings,” the district stated. “Further inspections and testing will be conducted to ensure the buildings are safe for the re-occupancy of students and staff.”

Barton has an enrollment of about 750 students in kindergarten through 2nd grade and employs about 30 teachers, along with staff and administrators. Environmental updates are posted here.

Sullivan has an enrollment of about 770 students in kindergarten through 5th grade and employs about 45 teachers, along with staff and administrators. Its environmental updates are posted here.

As schools in Philadelphia, elsewhere in Pennsylvania, and around the nation continue to show the effects of age and decay, leaders in the U.S. House unveiled an infrastructure spending plan that proposes a $70 billion grant program and a $30 billion tax credit program for high-poverty schools.

“High-profile incidents in Baltimore, where schools lacked heat, and in Philadelphia, where schools were contaminated with asbestos, have drawn attention to the state of those buildings,” reported. “In its latest report card on infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave schools a D-plus.”

The funding, known as the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, would be added to an existing infrastructure spending package and is likely to face strong opposition in the Republican-led U.S. Senate.

Defense Attorneys Win a Second Unionization Vote, Plan New Contract Negotiations

Public defenders in Philadelphia have voted by more than two-thirds majority to unionize for the first time in the 86-year history of the city’s Defender Association.

In a February 10 news release posted to Twitter, the new Defenders Union (@DefUnionPhila) announced that the National Labor Relations Board certified the results of a recent unionization vote, with 142 supporting their affiliation with the United Auto Workers and 65 against.

Public defenders are defense attorneys that represent indigent criminal defendants within the city at no cost to the defendants. There are about 240 attorneys working in the office. They represent about 70% of all people arrested in the city for criminal offenses or probation violations, according to WHYY.

“The Defenders Union was borne out of a strong desire for transparency and for a greater voice in the decision-making processes that guide our practice,” the union stated. “Now with the power of collective bargaining, we will improve our workplace, promote criminal justice reform, and strengthen our client representation.”

The Defender Association of Philadelphia, the non-profit organization that manages the practice, issued the following statement, according to WHYY: “We look forward to working in partnership with the union to advance our shared mission to provide high-quality legal defense and support to Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Members first voted in favor of unionizing in December, but the Association declined to recognize the vote and proposed a new vote overseen by a third party. In response, union organizers filed to hold the NLRB-sanctioned vote.

The new union stated it plans to elect members of its bargaining committee in the coming weeks, who will in turn lead contract negotiations with the Association.

As part of their initial petition sent to management, organizers stated, “The Defenders Union asserts that the mission of the office can only be fully realized through recognition of workers’ rights, in the tradition of all social justice movements.”

American Worker Income Improves Little in Latest ‘Real Earnings’ Report

The “real earnings” of the nation’s workers rose slightly in January relative to the cost of living, but showed no improvement year-to-year, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Real average hourly earnings for all employees increased 0.1% from December to January, seasonally adjusted. The difference reflects a 0.2% rise in average hourly earnings combined with a 0.1% rise in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U). Real average weekly earnings also increased 0.1% for the period because there was no change in the length of the average workweek.

Conversely, from January 2019 to January 2020, there was no change in the real average weekly earnings for all U.S. workers. Real average hourly earnings rose by 0.6% over the 12-month period, but the length of the average workweek declined by 0.6%.

Among production and nonsupervisory employees, there was no change in the real average hourly earnings from December to January. Yet the real average weekly earnings rose 0.3% month-to-month for those employees because their average workweek increased by 0.3%.

Year-to-year, real average weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees rose just 0.1%, figuring in a 0.6% decline in the length of their average workweek.

The BLS publishes a series of economic and employment-related news releases each month that are available by visiting the bureau’s website.

Analysts Conclude Better Education, Training Won’t Alone Solve Poverty Wages Problem

Many partisan commentators point to the nation’s historically low unemployment rate as an indicator that the economy is thriving, but a new analysis by the non-profit, non-partisan Brookings Institution paints a different picture.

Unemployment numbers “don’t tell the whole story,” the Washington-based think-tank wrote. Other considerations include the quality of jobs, the rate of pay for those jobs, and the relationship between wages and the cost of living.

Brookings “found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64 – or 44% of all workers – earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as childcare workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions.”

Further, the agency stated, “It would be a mistake to assume that most low-wage workers are young people just getting started, or students, or secondary earners, or otherwise financially secure.”

Among the key stats reported, 54% of low-wage workers are ages 25 to 54; 57% work full-time, year-round; 51% are primary earners or contribute substantially to family living expenses; 37% have children, while 23% of those earners live below the federal poverty line; 45% of low-wage earners ages 18 to 24 are in school or already have a college degree.

“These statistics tell an important story: Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages,” Brookings stated.

Further, the researchers acknowledged that better education and workforce training can be a pathway to better earnings for many. But this is not an absolute solution to pay disparities and the insufficient pay collected by those in low-earning jobs.

“Imagine that everyone without a college degree suddenly earned one. The jobs that pay low wages would not disappear. Hospitals would still need nursing assistants, hotels would need housekeepers, day care centers would need childcare workers, and so on,” Brookings stated.